Kevin Drum

Chocolate and You

| Mon Apr. 26, 2010 9:23 PM EDT

From the LA Times today:

Study links chocolate and depression 

Well duh. When there's no chocolate around I get kind of depressed. They needed a study for that? Apparently so:

Researchers at UC San Diego and UC Davis examined chocolate consumption and other dietary intake patterns among 931 men and women who were not using antidepressants. The participants were also given a depression screening test. Those who screened positive for possible depression consumed an average of 8.4 servings of chocolate — defined as one ounce of chocolate candy — per month. That compared with 5.4 servings per month among people who were not depressed.

Oh please. 8.4 ounces per month? As in, two ounces per week? I'd say that anyone who consumes that little chocolate ought to be checked for personality disorders. It's the rest of us who are normal.

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Palin Inc.

| Mon Apr. 26, 2010 3:05 PM EDT

Gabe Sherman writes in New York magazine about Sarah Palin's constant money worries during and after her vice-presidential campaign:

Palin knew there were ways to solve her money problems, and then some. Planning quickly got under way for a book....Two former Palin-campaign aides — Jason Recher and Doug McMarlin — were hired to plan a book tour with all the trappings of a national political campaign. But there was a hitch: With Alaska’s strict ethics rules, Palin worried that her day job would get in the way. In March, she petitioned the Alaska attorney general’s office, which responded with a lengthy list of conditions. “There was no way she could go on a book tour while being governor” is how one member of her Alaska staff put it.

On Friday morning, July 3, Palin called her cameraman to her house in Wasilla and asked him to be on hand to record a prepared speech. Around noon, in front of a throng of national reporters, she announced that she was stepping down as governor. To many, it seemed a mysterious move, defying the logic of a potential presidential candidate, and possibly reflecting some hidden scandal — but in fact the choice may have been as easy as balancing a checkbook.

The whole thing is worth a read.

Greece Update

| Mon Apr. 26, 2010 1:14 PM EDT

After Greece officially requested financial help on Friday, markets responded favorably. But that lasted no more than a few hours. Here's today's news:

Financial markets upped the pressure on debt-ridden Greece, as investors remained skeptical about its long-term solvency despite assurances that a rescue loan will help pay off a chunk of its crushing debts in coming weeks.

....Analysts had said they expected the euro's bounce to be short-lived. Now it appears the so-called relief rally after Greece on Friday formally requested financial aid has already run its course....Underscoring those worries, Greek 10-year bond yields soared to 9.60%, from 8.70% late Friday, as the yield premium over comparable German debt, the euro-zone benchmark, widened to 6.55 percentage point, from 5.63 percentage point late Friday.

This is just FYI. I continue to think that Greece's prospects look very grim, IMF bailout or no.

Inside the Cocoon

| Mon Apr. 26, 2010 12:56 PM EDT

Is the conservative noise machine good for conservatives? Ross Douthat suggests that while it might be good politically, it hasn't been very effective at getting conservative policies enacted:

The presidency of George W. Bush, the first Republican to govern in the age of Fox News, represented a political high-water mark for modern conservatism: For the first time since, well, ever, a right-wing Republican Party controlled the House, the Senate and the presidency all at once. But nobody on the right regards the Bush era as a golden age of conservative policymaking.

....In the age Before Fox News, on the other hand (B.F.N., to historians), the American Right managed to lower taxes, slow government’s growth to a crawl, whip inflation, and deregulate important swathes of the American economy, among other Reagan-era accomplishments. The Berlin Wall came down, and then the Soviet Union fell, even though conservatives were forced to follow both stories in the mainstream media, rather than hearing about them from Sean Hannity.

There are some caveats to this, which Douthat notes, but he suggests that the noise machine, overall, has made conservatism flabbier by making it unnecessary for them to really engage with the outside world:

Given the trajectory of conservatism across the last thirty years, I think the burden of proof here is on the partisans of Fox News and talk radio: It may be that conservative politics have benefited dramatically from the rise of a right-wing media-industrial complex, but there’s plenty of evidence pointing the other way....Conservatives had a real intellectual advantage in the days when they had to engage with the mainstream media....In the age of Fox News they’re giving this advantage up.

As it happens, I think this goes a little too far. Conservatism was largely successful in the 80s because it was primed for a backlash against the previous two decades of liberalism. But then conservatives won: taxes went down, the Soviet Union fell, the economy surged, and social liberalism, if not defeated, was at least slowed down. Frankly, by the time George Bush was elected in 2000, they didn't have all that much left on their plate. Liberals, conversely, by 2008 had a backlog of several decades' worth of ideas they wanted implemented, so it's hardly surprising that they came out of the gate pretty strongly after Obama was elected.

Still, there's a worthwhile point here. The Fox cocoon may be good for stirring up the troops, but it's almost certainly not good for the intellectual development of new ideas. And eventually that catches up to you. If modern conservatism is simultaneously politically vigorous but intellectually enervated, Roger Ailes and Rush Limbaugh probably deserve both the credit and the blame.

The GOP's Lousy Bluff on Financial Reform

| Mon Apr. 26, 2010 12:31 PM EDT

Jon Chait points to this paragraph in today's Politico story about a Republican filibuster of the financial reform bill:

McConnell secured a commitment from his conference to hold together in opposition on the first vote, but all bets are off after that, aides acknowledge. McConnell’s challenge after Monday is preventing moderates such as Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) from breaking away and weakening Republican leverage.

It is a little peculiar that Republican aides would concede this, isn't it? If even they think that a few moderates are going to peel off after doing their duty on the first round, what real incentive do Democrats have to seriously compromise? In fact, this puts them in the best situation they could have hoped for: they get to slam Republicans for obstructing a popular reform bill; they get to pass something fairly soon anyway; and they get points with their base for not caving in to GOP demands to water down the bill. What's not to like?

China's Housing Bubble

| Mon Apr. 26, 2010 11:51 AM EDT

David Pierson of the LA Times reports on China's housing bubble, which is now far more frenzied in third-tier cities like Hefei than it is in places like Beijing or Shanghai. Some excerpts:

Taxi drivers boast of owning multiple flats for investment. Billboards hawk developments with names such as Villa Glorious and Rich Country. Frenzied crowds pack sales events with bags of cash, buying units that exist only on blueprints. Average home values in Hefei soared 50% last year.

....Xi Zhou, a cameraman for a local news channel, paid $50,000 for his 900-square-foot unit in December. He figures it's now worth $80,000...."For people of my generation, property is all we talk about," said Xi, 27, who will share the new home with his wife and parents. "I felt a lot of pressure to buy because the longer I didn't, the more likely I wouldn't be able to afford anything."

....Many Hefei residents are as obsessed with real estate news as Angelenos are. One of the most popular radio programs here is an afternoon talk show called "Blossom Real Estate." Some prospective buyers get half a dozen text messages a day on their cellphones from developers advertising new properties. Apartments are opened with great fanfare, with outdoor concerts in malls.

....Guo Hongbing, a marketing consultant for several developers [...] gave visitors a tour of Mediterranean-style condominiums....All the properties had been sold, and Guo was interested in estimating how many were left empty by investors. His unscientific method? Looking for curtains. "See, less than half that building is occupied," he said, pointing to one block with several bare windows. "These speculators want to buy as many as possible."

"I felt a lot of pressure to buy because the longer I didn't, the more likely I wouldn't be able to afford anything." Hey, that sure sounds familiar to this Southern California native!

Every time I read about this, someone points out that China's housing bubble isn't driven by debt. China's middle class are huge savers, and they mostly buy with cash or, at the least, with a big down payment. But I wonder if that's really true? Reliable statistics are probably impossible to get, but even if real buyers are avoiding debt, I'd be surprised if speculators are. If half the units in a typical building are being snapped up by speculators hoping to make a quick yuan, that might mean there's more debt than we think fueling this bubble.

But at least there's this: "China's central government is taking steps to cool the market. This month, lawmakers raised down-payment requirements for the purchase of second homes and gave banks new powers to restrict lending to speculators. Capital gains and monthly property taxes are being considered." Maybe it's enough, maybe it isn't. But it's a hell of a lot more than U.S. regulators did.

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Public in Favor of Financial Reform

| Mon Apr. 26, 2010 11:13 AM EDT

According to a new Washington Post poll:

  • 63% want stronger regulation of the financial industry
  • 43% want stronger regulation of derivatives
  • 53% support requiring banks pay into a fund to help wind down failed financial institutions
  • 59% support stronger regulation of consumer finance products

I'm a little unsure if this is good news or bad news. It's good that there's generally majority (or better) support for all this stuff, but the majorities aren't all that big. I wouldn't be surprised, for example, if lots of people had no opinion on regulation of derivatives, but I am surprised that among those who do have an opinion, support for stronger regulation is so weak (43%-41%).

On the other hand, numbers like these are often high and then fall once the political debate starts. These numbers are (mostly) still fairly high even though the public debate has been in full swing for a month or two. So that's promising.

Overall, though, the public doesn't exactly seem ready to hit the streets with pitchforks and torches. Maybe public opinion would be stronger if we could somehow convince them that Goldman Sachs planned to convene death panels?

Quote of the Day: Eliot Spitzer

| Sun Apr. 25, 2010 5:28 PM EDT

From Jonathan Bernstein, after acknowledging that Eliot Spitzer is qualified to comment on, say, financial reform or the prostitution biz:

As an expert on how to be a good Governor of New York, however...well, I'm not seeing that.

At issue is why the New York Times felt a burning desire to run this front page story.

Graham and the Climate Bill

| Sun Apr. 25, 2010 2:15 PM EDT

Senator Lindsey Graham (R–SC) angrily withdrew his support for climate legislation this weekend after learning that Harry Reid and President Obama apparently want to move on immigration reform first. Since Graham himself has been pushing the administration to get more serious about immigration, charges of hypocrisy popped up almost immediately. I had one all teed up myself. But here's the most relevant part of yesterday's letter:

I know from my own personal experience the tremendous amounts of time, energy, and effort that must be devoted to this issue to make even limited progress.

In 2007, we spent hundreds of hours over many months with President Bush’s Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, and nearly every member of the U.S. Senate searching for a way to address our nation’s immigration problems. Unlike this current “effort,” it was a good-faith attempt to address a very difficult national issue.

Some of the major provisions we embraced in 2007 — such as creation of a Virtual Fence using cameras, motion detectors and other technological devices to protect our borders — have been scrapped for the time. Other issues we found agreement on at the time, such as a temporary guest worker program, have unraveled over the past three years.

Expecting these major issues to be addressed in three weeks — which appears to be their current plan based upon media reports — is ridiculous. It also demonstrates the raw political calculations at work here.

Let’s be clear, a phony, political effort on immigration today accomplishes nothing but making it exponentially more difficult to address in a serious, comprehensive manner in the future.

Well? Is he right? Because let's be honest here: this really does seem more like a political exercise to firm up the Hispanic vote than a serious effort to deliver a major immigration bill this year, doesn't it? It's possible that Graham's defection from the climate bill is cynically motivated too, but that only means that both sides are playing politics.

Or am I missing something here?

Is God Dead? Or Merely Bored?

| Sun Apr. 25, 2010 1:31 PM EDT

"Given the durability and predictability of the arguments involved," says Ross Douthat, "it’s hard to come up with something interesting to say on the question of Christianity versus the 'new' atheists." True enough. But he says David Bentley Hart has done it, and as evidence he points us to Hart's recent essay in First Things about his weariness with the anti-God contentions of people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Their arguments, he says, are just the same-old-same-old, delivered with too little reflection, too much bombast, and a way-too-healthy dose of contempt. And maybe so. Atheists can be as annoying as anyone else, after all.

Unfortunately, when it comes to annoying and stale rhetorical tropes, Hart shows that he's no slacker either. This is perhaps my least favorite of all time:

A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

You can almost hear Hart sighing, "Please Lord, deliver me from cretins." But his pretensions are, if anything, even more insipid than anything coming from the New Atheists: they are, like Jesus, at least trying to reach ordinary people in language that's meaningful to them. Hart wants nothing to do with that. Here he is objecting to the New Atheists' view that God is "some very immense and powerful being" who explains nothing because he, himself, then needs to be explained:

The most venerable metaphysical claims about God do not simply shift priority from one kind of thing (say, a teacup or the universe) to another thing that just happens to be much bigger and come much earlier (some discrete, very large gentleman who preexists teacups and universes alike). These claims start, rather, from the fairly elementary observation that nothing contingent, composite, finite, temporal, complex, and mutable can account for its own existence, and that even an infinite series of such things can never be the source or ground of its own being, but must depend on some source of actuality beyond itself. Thus, abstracting from the universal conditions of contingency, one very well may (and perhaps must) conclude that all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such: not a “supreme being,” not another thing within or alongside the universe, but the infinite act of being itself, the one eternal and transcendent source of all existence and knowledge, in which all finite being participates.

You can decide for yourself whether this string of words actually makes anything about God more understandable. I doubt it. But it hardly matters, because even if you like Hart's formulation, this is simply not the lived experience of Christianity for most people. Hart would like us to believe that anyone who hasn't spent years meditating on Aquinas and Nietzsche isn't worth engaging with, but walk into any Christian church in America — or the world — and you'll find it full of people who understand God much the same way Hitchens and Dawkins do, not the way Hart does. That's the reality of the religious experience for the vast majority of believers. To call a foul on those who want to engage with this experience — with the world as it is, rather than with Hart's abstract graduate seminar version of the world — is to insist that nonbelievers forfeit the game without even taking the field.

So: do the New Atheists recycle old arguments? Of course they do. But that's not because they're illiterate, it's because those arguments have never been convincingly answered. All the recondite language in the world doesn't change that, either, because the paradoxes are inherent in the ideas themselves. In the end, the English language probably just isn't up to the task of answering them, no matter how hard you try to twist it. To say that God is is best understood as an absolute plenitude of actuality doesn't really advance the ball so much as it merely tries to hide it.

Later in the essay, perhaps recognizing that he's exhausted the semantic possibilities here, Hart redirects his focus to the cultural impact of Christianity, suggesting that the New Atheists haven't truly grappled with what a world without religion would be like. And perhaps they haven't. But interior passions and social mores work both ways. Did Isaac Newton feel a deeper aesthetic connection with the infinite when he was inventing calculus or when he was absorbed in Christian mysticism? Who can say? Not me, surely, and not Hart either. Likewise, the question of whether Christianity has, on balance, been a force for moral good is only slightly more tractable. Does keeping the servants from stealing the silver really outweigh the depredations of the Crusades and the Inquisition?

But no matter how beguiling those questions are, surely the metaphysical one always comes first. To say merely that Christianity is comforting or practical — assuming you believe that — is hardly enough. You need to show that it's true. And if you want to assert that something is true, the onus is on you to demonstrate it, not on the New Atheists to demonstrate conclusively that it isn't. After all, in the end the only difference between Hart and Dawkins is that Hart believes in 1% of the world's religions and Dawkins believes in 0% of them. It's Dawkins' job only to question that remaining 1%. It's Hart's job to answer him.